Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Business of Ironman Hawaii


This is not so much about the actual business of Ironman Hawaii itself, but about the businesses that are focused on the triathlon business and how they make use of Ironman Hawaii to advance their businesses.

It's pretty clear, that within the sport of triathlon that the #1 race and event each year that most triathletes pay attention to is the Ford Ironman World Championships, aka Ironman Hawaii (IMH). Therefore, it makes sense that there is so much focus on this one event from a marketing and promotional perspective for brands and companies, that work within the triathlon market or brands and companies that want in, and want a part of that market.

In yesterdays blog I talked about how Quintana Roo bike founder, and now Slowtwitch Publisher Dan Empfield, in a very grass-roots and basic manner went about promoting his new triathlon specific bike at Ironman Hawaii many years ago. This is how I first met Dan - with bare QR frame slung over his shoulder, at the pier one morning, pumping me up on this new frame geometry that he had come up with that would make me cycle faster and run faster off the bike. He was very passionate about this. I was convinced right on the spot!

The triathlon crowd at IMH is somewhat unique and novel in that trying to market and promote to them is a bit of a mixed blessing:

1. This is for the most part a best-of-the-best group, who tend to be set in their ways, have their favorite gear, and brands, might already be "sponsored", and are sophisticated in their choices. In other words, it takes a lot to move them one way or the other.

2. The best that could be said about many of these folks is that they can be major influencers and ambassadors back home in their own communities. So if you do get them on board, you have a great mega-phone at a local level.

Many companies continue to do what Dan did years ago - just show up and informally, start to spread the word of their brand or product. The Pier at the morning swims is the perfect location for this, because within a couple hours each morning all week long, you'll have 500 - 1,000+ athletes and the many other folks in town converging on the Pier. It's a rare morning when you do go down to the Pier and not walk away with some promotional literature, possibly a little give away shwag, or a sales pitch on something. In fact, I am drinking my coffee this morning out of a coffee cup that was part of a cooperative marketing effort on the pier at the morning swim two years ago between TYR , and Java-On-The Rock, a coffee shop along Alii drive.

A slight step up from this would be the companies like Coffees-of-Hawaii who to the best of my knowledge have no official status with IMH, other than that company owner Albert Boyce is a regular competitor at the event - but they know that triathletes love their coffee! Coffees-of-Hawaii promote themselves in a very unique way by mooring a large catamaran about 400m out from the pier and anyone out there swimming can swim-up and get a shot of Coffees-Of-Hawaii espresso, and if you are very nice they might put an extra shot of something really nice in it for you!( If you know what I mean!!) That's me in the picture at the top downing an espresso + Baily's two years ago!

Another level up from this is the more aggressive guerrilla marketing that can go on amongst the bigger brands and players in the business - typically with brands trying to move on in, on the space that a WTC or IMH sponsor has. I recall years ago, when Gatorade was about to launch their new energy bar. The launch location was Ironman Hawaii and at the time Gatorade was the official sports beverage. PowerBar had had an informal relationship with IMH for several years. The exact details of which I don't really know. I just know that in 1993, PowerBar was suddenly not given any formal allowances with IMH, because IMH wanted to do everything it could for Gatorade in helping them get this new energy bar off the ground. This prompted the marketing team at PowerBar to shift into high-gear and they immediately signed up a bunch of the top Pros in the month prior to IMH and then they also went room to room at the King Kam Hotel and gave people( probably in exchange simply for a box of PowerBars) a PowerBar banner to put over their balcony. When you came along Alii drive right by the finish line and race registration all you could see was about 100+ PowerBar banners flapping on people's balconies of the King Kam Hotel.

Gatorade dug deep and it got a bit nasty - at the Pro Meeting that year, they went so far as to say that, some of those neophyte PowerBar sponsored athletes would get limited, or no camera time for the NBC show - even if they were placed high up!! Of course years later, this is all moot as the Gatorade energy bar never caught on and now PowerBar/Nestle is a world-wide partner of WTC/Ironman and Gatorade is no longer involved!!

Another perhaps not as dramatic or guerrilla-type of marketing, we have been witness to just this past week - but no less impactful based on the strategy and some good fortune that fell in a key players lap.

Specialized started to build up hype about a new super triathlon bike, a month ago at Interbike. "Top-Secret - wait till Kona", the promotional material said. At exactly the same time, two time winner of IMH Craig Alexander decided to part ways with his bike sponsor Orbea. At the WTC's 70.3 World Championship four weeks ago, Alexander was riding on a Cervelo P4 with the logos blacked out! Alexander won that race, in convincing fashion and had perhaps his best bike leg ever against this level of competition. Speculation was starting to build. Then a grainy, "spy-photo" of Alexander came out, of him training in Kona two weeks ago - It was hard to tell from the photo what bike or brand he was riding. The the speculation and rumors shifted into over-drive. On the Slowtwitch Forum several of the threads with the biggest page-views of the year, where on this topic - "What Bike is Craig Riding". Specialized had their launch a few days ago of this new triathlon specific bike - the new Shiv in Kona, and then a day later, it's announced that Alexander's new bike sponsor is . . . . Specialized!

Specialized was savvy about this. They knew that for many triathletes, it's all about the bike. I am sure they also knew that, with the new media, and the social networking tools that are out there now, that word and news, spreads very quickly ounce you plant those viral seeds. Then of course, the #1 favorite for the most important race in the sport, literally falls right in their lap, and BAM - well, you could not have planned it any better! Or might this have been part of some grander master marketing plan??

Of course, if we are talking bikes and IMH, we need to talk about Cervelo. Ironically, in both triathlon and in road racing, Cervelo has been very successful. They have won just about everything. The one "major" that they have not won is the mens race at IMH - and it may have just slipped through their hands for this year! But does it really matter? Cervelo dominates in the one category that really matters - the most bikes in transition at IMH and many other big triathlons around the world. They crush it in the bike counts. Strangely, Cervelo arrived at this point a number of years ago, by doing things in a somewhat non-traditional manner, with far less traditional marketing than normal. Does who wins IMH riding a Cervelo matter to Cervelo these days?

Finally, there are all the real IMH sponsors. It costs a lot of money to be formally and directly associated with the WTC and IMH as a sponsor, partner or licensee. These relationships can be hugely successful - think of the Timex Ironman watch. The Timex/Ironman relationship is generally speaking regarded as one of the most successful co-branding relationships of all time. And it all started at Ironman Hawaii. And Ford seems to be getting good value for it's title sponsorship of not just IMH but almost all the Ironman races in North America. But there are many other smaller brands that so have a relationship that we rarely hear about. Is it worth it for them?


How influenced are you, by who the sponsors are of Ironman Hawaii and by the marketing that other companies do during Ironman Hawaii race week?

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